ECTACO Info | Speaking a second language helps Oklahoma City police officers do their job

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autor: BY LI LIN

The goal of the Oklahoma City police bilingual unit will soon have enough bilingual officers to mirror the demographics of the city, supervisor Lt. Paco Balderrama says.
Police officer Clint Music pulls into the parking lot of a Subway restaurant off Interstate 35. A Hispanic woman wearing a red tank top and dark pants is standing between two vehicles apparently waiting for help.

The officer doesn't know her situation. Is she injured or being threatened, and will she be able to communicate that in English?

In the past, language barriers were one of the more significant obstacles that officers faced in carrying out their duty. Now, thanks to the Oklahoma City Police Department's bilingual unit, language issues have been largely diminished.

In this case, the woman tells Music in English that she had just arrived on a bus and has no way to get home.

He offers her a ride.

“Be careful, the seat is hot,” he says in Spanish as he helps the woman get inside the police vehicle.

As Oklahoma City grows, so do its ethnic communities. The police department formalized a bilingual unit in 2002 to meet the language demands that brings.

Music, who studied Spanish in college, has been a part of the bilingual unit since passing the department's language certification test.

The 25-year-old officer said he decided he wanted to work in the law enforcement field while he was attending Oklahoma Christian University. Both his father and his grandfather are police officers. After graduating college, Music joined the police department in 2009.

Music said he chose Spanish as his major in college because he was interested in the language and the culture, and because Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the United States, he wanted to make himself marketable.

A second language is not only a benefit, it is a need, he said.

Music has made his language abilities useful in a number of crises during his 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. He recalled an incident where a Spanish-speaking woman sought help after she was physically assaulted by her boyfriend.

“If I had not known Spanish, I wouldn't be able to help her,” Music said.

It turned out that the suspect was around the corner. Music and his partner were able to capture the man and take him to jail.

Music said he was giving the woman at the Subway a chance to practice her English before speaking to her in Spanish.

“If I see that they are struggling or just trying to get by, then I will tell them that I speak Spanish,” he said.

Music is one of 30 Spanish-speaking officers in the bilingual unit, police spokesman Capt. Dexter Nelson said. The unit also has four officers who use American Sign Language, two who speak Vietnamese and one who speaks Korean.

“Communication is the key to the development of the city and the law enforcement agency,” said Lt. Paco Balderrama, bilingual unit supervisor.

The goal of the unit is to have enough bilingual officers to mirror the demographics of the city, Balderrama said. For example, if 40 percent of the population speaks Spanish, then the department wants to have a similar percentage of Spanish-speaking officers in the unit.

When officers run into a situation that requires a language no one in the unit speaks, the department uses interpreters from the University of Oklahoma or AT&T translators, he said.

Understanding cultural differences also is crucial to effective communication, he said.

All Oklahoma City police officers are required to complete diversity training, which stresses the importance of treating everyone with respect, regardless of background and culture, Balderrama said.